“If you build an army of 100 lions and their leader is a dog, in any fight, the lions will die like a dog. But if you should build an army of 100 dogs, and their leader is a lion, all dogs will fight like a lion.”
Before the Championship Rings have even been awarded (to – lets face it – the Golden State Warriors again), NBA teams that failed to make the playoffs this year are stealing headlines away from the teams that are actually still producing for the league. They are doing so by cutting, interviewing, and signing potential coaches, some of whom are either still working the playoffs in the media, like Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, or still coaching in them, like Luke Walton.
The Lakers, Kings, Wizards and Timberwolves all fired their coaches after their respective seasons ended a couple of weeks ago, though it should be noted that the Timberwolves’ coach, Sam Mitchell, was on an interim basis after the tragic passing of coach Flip Saunders. Now Mitchell, Byron Scott, George Karl, and Randy Wittman are standing in the NBA bread line scratching their heads – especially Wittman, seeing as how the past two years his team overachieved and made it to the East semis.
During the season, the front office beheadings were even more frequent, and even more brutal.
The Suns cut Jeff Hornacek and replaced him with Earl Watson, better known as the guy who always fell onto my team’s lap in my Fantasy Draft days when I played NBA 2K. Then, the Nets axed Lionel Hollins, the Knicks tossed Derek Fisher (much to Matt Barnes’ delight), the Cavs booted Blatt, and the Rockets pulled a coupe on Kevin McHale. In Cleveland, LeBron is one step closer to being the NBA’s version of Jackie Moon, and in Arizona, as he said in an interview with ESPN a while back, former Boston great, Kevin McHale, is “playing golf in Scottsdale.”
That’s gotta be more fun than having James Harden gossip about you during recess and sitting by yourself at lunch while foreign-exchange student Michael Beasley and all the other ‘cool kids’ brag about whichever Kardashian gave them a handie behind the bleachers while they were playing hooky from 3rd period ‘Defense 101.’
The count reads 9 now for the number of Head Coaches out of a job. Let’s not forget how we got here, though: with two coaches who seemingly got blind sided without having Sandra Bullock there to give them a Capri-Sun afterwards. Tommy Thibodeau and Scotty Brooks (it might sound a little emasculating, but it’s so fun to say) found themselves panhandling for jobs after disappointing seasons with their respective teams, though both had a more than respectable track record with their squads. Each recently found homes in Minnesota and Washington D.C.; but why were they shooed away in the first place?
That’s 11 coaches fired from the end of last season through today.
That’s a third of the league, folks.
There are explanations that we can reasonably make behind each firing. Some were tattled on by their star player and forced out (Blatt, McHale, and Karl), but the others were pushed out after one bad year. Granted, for some, that bad year was accompanied by another bad year the previous season (Hornacek, Hollins, Scott, and Fisher), but these coaches definitely had an alibi for why their teams did so poorly.
The Suns blew up their three-headed dragon at point guard – Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, and Eric Bledsoe – keeping only Bledsoe. Then, they traded Dragic to the Heat for Danny Granger (whoops), and Thomas to the Celtics for Marcus Thornton (oh god no). There was tension in the locker room, specifically with Goran, whose playing time had dwindled with the arrival of the others, but the fact that they gave away two great offensive weapons for a steaming pile of nada is perplexing. Hornacek fought through the odds, but at the end of the day, he bit the bullet and took the fall.
Lionel Hollins just took a flyer on a team filled with damaged goods. I think he was smart enough to know that he would probably get fired: he just wanted to cash as many checks as he could before that time came.
Byron Scott inherited a team with a geriatric Kobe as the Lakers’ go-to guy, so it’s not like he had much to go off of either. Plus, he still managed to coach some young guys into playing pretty darn good, only to have those players be poached off by teams that actually wanted to win: see Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill.
Old Man Fisherman saw the bright lights and couldn’t resist: Derrick was given the chance to coach the legendary New York Knicks, run by his buddy Philly Jacks, with the freedom to run the same triangle through which the two won five championships already. Then Melo got hurt last season so his team spent the whole season being bent over a barrel and shown the fifty states
The next season he actually had the Knicks over-achieving with great play from Latvian rookie Kristaps Porzingis; but after going 1-10 after being even at 22-22, he got the boot.
As for Wittman, Thibodeau and Brooks, they each had one bad season, but only after stringing together multiple successful seasons.
Wittman got the Wizards to the East semis twice before losing Bradley Real, who is half of Washington’s bread and butter, to injury for a good chunk of the season and consequently missing the playoffs. But seriously: what do the Wizards have beyond their star-studded back-court?
Scott Brooks suffered the same fate, except with a cherry on top compared to what Wittman dealt with. The Thunder lost both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for significant chunks of time, yet they still mustered up a winning record and just barely missed the playoffs after losing a tiebreaker to New Orleans.
This was after leading the Thunder to the playoffs five straight years, including a Finals appearance, which in most situations, is something that I would consider pretty darn close to tenure eligibility: sadly, there’s no tenure in pro sports.
Finally, Thibodeau is one of the greatest defensive-minded coaches to ever grace the court, but he was fired after failing to bring a championship to The Windy City. Every one of his 4 years in Chicago, Thibs got them to the playoffs. Considering Derrick Rose’s injury report, that was no small acheivement. Some might say he had a strong player in Jimmy Butler to work with, but Butler only reached his star potential during Thibodeau’s last year with the Bulls.
Coaches are being put on the chopping block to answer for their team’s woes because they’re the most prominent individuals in an organization that can shoulder the blame. You can’t fire your star player for getting hurt, though in many instances that is the main reason a team doesn’t live up to its expectations.
In today’s ADHD world, where success and happiness could not come to you any sooner, general managers are forced by their owners into ‘win now mode’, and have to listen to critique after critique, whether it be from the media, from fans, or from the players on their team. After every season their team does not win a championship, they feel the pressure being cranked up another level. Eventually, they crack.
Some, like Darryl Morey, David Griffin, and Vlade Divac, feel that pressure from inside their own organizations, and hear their star players whispering in their ear that they don’t like their coach, and if they don’t do something about it, they’re going to walk.
Most Presidents and GM’s of teams feel the heat and choose to take the easy-fix, letting the coach take the fall for everything that’s wrong with the team; but the bosses who decide to stick with their guy through thick and thin, end up with a healthier team environment that proves successful – even if they have to survive a rough patch or two in the process.
Look at San Antonio, Miami, and Dallas: these are the top three teams in the number of years they have retained their head coach.
Gregg Popovich has been with the Spurs for 20 years, and that has resulted in five championships, and a 19-year streak of making the playoffs, as well as a 17-year streak of finishing at or above 50 wins in the regular season.
Erik Spoelstra has been with the Heat for 8 years, and that has resulted in two championships. It certainly helped that both championships came with pairing the greatest player in the world with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, but he shouldn’t be counted out for his role in all of that, seeing as how Cleveland now can’t seem to do the same with their Big Three.
Rick Carlisle has been with the Mavericks for 8 years, and that has resulted in a championship of their own; plus, Carlisle did this with Dirk Nowitzki and a bunch of role players, and, through that same formula, has continued to bring the Mavericks to the playoffs year after year.
All three GM’s: R.C. Buford, Pat Riley, and Donnie Nelson, see the talent that their coaches possess, and ride with their homeboy no matter what (especially Donnie Nelson, who has seen Dallas go through a rough stretch after winning the title in 2011 – though most of the blame goes to the roster that he and Mark Cuban put around Dirk).
Half of these coaches, maybe even more, are comparably talented to the three listed above. Thibodeau, Hollins, Scotty Brooks (every time I say it I get a little tingle), Randy Wittman (sort of), and – honestly – Jeff Hornacek, all belong in the upper-echelon of coaching. It’s especially disconcerting to see the great ones be exiled by their own team. Excluding David Blatt, who really hasn’t proved himself as a good coach yet, Kevin McHale and George Karl are tremendous coaches that just got stung by star athletes that chose to snitch (though, unlike in the jail yard, these snitches did not consequently receive stitches).
So, as a plead to the NBA, the same league that still sees 76ers coach Brett Brown with a job after being a part of three horrible seasons with his team because the man who was actually responsible, Sam Hinkie, was ousted – which was nice for a change: can we stop sending our coaches to the guillotine so quickly? Even Napoleon would’ve spared Kevin McHale from his bloody demise.
Actually, somebody go check Mitch Kupchak’s ancestry.com page, I think we might have a fun fact on our hands.
By Cal Little